Just A’ Pickin’ & Grinning

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Mississippi Delta was shining like a National Guitar.

— Paul SimonMy Beautiful Mystery Companion kindly gave me a resonator guitar for my birthday, the result of an offhand response to the annual question: “What do you want for your birthday?” It is a modestly priced knockoff of the classic Sunburst National Guitar, with the silver cone in the middle of the body. My Rogue sounds and looks great. Now I just have to learn how to play it.I am not a total newbie, having hacked around in high school. I even played and sang briefly at the Shakey’s Pizza Parlor where I worked in high school — as the words to songs flashed on the screen, me wearing a red-and-white striped shirt and a straw boater. There are clearly other reasons that is now difficult to find a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, but I suspect my utter lack of talent and musicianship drove away more than a few customers munching on anchovie and mushroom pizzas as I flailed away. That was nearly four decades ago. I gave up trying to play after college.

Every time I have watched or heard someone smoothly sliding a bottle neck down a slide guitar, or banging out a 12-bar blues progression, it made want to try again. I have no illusions, at 56-years-old, of rising to anything approaching mediocrity. I just want to amuse myself and stretch my creative boundaries a bit. In that vein, I have signed up for eight half-hour lessons at a local, venerable guitar school in North Austin. I paid for the lessons in advance to force me to follow through for at least that long.

My instructor, who I will call Ted because that is his name, is roughly my age. He looked vaguely concerned when I told him I remembered no more than five chords. And that I am preternaturally stiff-jointed, utterly without rhythm, have no instinct for picking out tunes, and might possibly be tone-deaf. Plus my fingers hurt from practicing a few minutes a day since receiving the Rogue. A lot.

Ted patiently taught me how to properly place my fingers on the fret so the tips hit instead of the sides of the digits. He noted that I was clenching the neck with enough strength to choke a squirrel and pointed out it is actually easier to pay with a lighter touch. Once, when enthusiastically strumming the E7 chord, he stopped me with a pained expression and asked, “Can’t you tell that one of your fingers is on the wrong string?”

No, actually I can’t. That’s why I’m taking lessons, I thought but didn’t say.

Meanwhile, through the wall I could hear the sound of someone running through a nice blues riff flawlessly. Probably some 12-year-old kid who has been playing since he was not long out of pull-ups, I figure. The waiting area consisted of teens, tykes, one young woman twirling a pair of drumsticks, and some old guy wearing flip-flops and a UT cap. That would be me.

I try to practice at least 15 minutes a day, first going through the finger loosening exercises Ted suggested, than monotonously strumming a sequence of three chords over 36 bars. At least I think that is what I’m doing, judging from the handouts received.

The printer was on the blink, so I just took home two sheets, which is plenty at this point. Ted assures me it will get easier as times passes, and that learning this blues progression allows me to play most any blues tune — just as the major chords of C,D, and G will get one through a bunch of country classics.

I bought a brass slide at the music store for $8 or so. I enjoy sliding it up and down the neck, making goofy sounds — but I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. First time I put it on my ring finger, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get it off. I didn’t tell that to Ted. He might fire me as his student, and there are seven lessons to go.

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